I recently had a meeting with one of our high school students who is preparing to receive First Communion. I was supposed to evaluate whether or not she had the necessary knowledge and desire to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Since the parents are the primary educators of their children in the Catholic faith, it was this girl’s parents who had been preparing her to receive the Eucharist. The parish, of course, offers support to the parents in this somewhat daunting task by offering classes for the adults to help them better understand their faith so that they might be able to pass it on to their children. So, as is the custom in the parish, a parent accompanied this girl to the meeting.
Before I even began the assessment with her, I first asked her father a couple of preliminary questions. Since we had been offering classes for parents specifically on the Eucharist to help their children prepare for First Communion, I asked him if he had attended any of them. He replied yes, that he was able to sit in on some of those classes. I gave him a positive reaction, glad that someone had been taking advantage of such an opportunity, and then asked what he thought of them: had he found them helpful, enjoyable, etc.? His answer to that question struck me. It went something like this:
Yeah, they were okay. I’m not the most spiritual person, so I didn’t really like how the guy would tell us that some things were mysteries that we just aren’t able to understand. I’m an educated man, and this isn’t the Stone Age. We have access to a lot of information, so I really don’t like people telling me that I can’t know something.
This sort of caught me off guard, and as I was hearing him say all of this, I had a lot of thoughts racing through my head about how I could respond. But that meeting was not really the time nor the place to get into an hour long Theological argument about our capacity for the knowledge and inability to know an infinite God. This interaction with him did, however, provoke a response in my own heart that I have been pondering as of late.
Human beings are finite creatures, which means they are limited in a lot of aspects. This should come as no surprise to any of us. We are all aware, sometimes painfully so, of our shortcomings or inability to do certain things. We know of our mortality (especially in the face of death), our weakness (especially when our health is poor), and our being limited by time and space. In other words, we can’t do it all.
Reason alone should lead one to acknowledge that since human beings are finite, they must owe their existence to something that is infinite. It makes sense that there would be some sort of Infinite Being that is responsible for the creation and sustaining of that which is finite. If everything was finite and therefore limited, then how could the world be held in existence?
St. Anselm describes God as something than which nothing greater can be thought. All of us can very easily think of something that is greater than we are. Our everyday life experience constantly reminds us that we are limited in one way or another. So we know that we are not God, because we can think of something greater.
Now to return to the statement of that girl’s father in the meeting. If we believe that we are able to know and comprehend everything, then we must be God. Because if God is infinite, and if we were able to know everything about Him (i.e. nothing about Him or the Catholic faith was a mystery), then we also would be infinite. That which is finite is, by definition, limited. In the same way, that which is infinite is unlimited. That which is unlimited cannot be fully enveloped by that which is limited, otherwise it too would become limited. Something finite cannot contain, even in the sense of knowledge, that which is infinite. That would be a very clear contradiction of reality. St. Augustine even said: “Si comprehendis, non est Deus.” (If you understand him, he is not God.)
Ironically, how ignorant would it be on our part to assume that we could know all things! How completely backwards to believe that a finite creature could fully comprehend the infinite! Instead, one ought to embrace true humility and see reality as it is: we are not God. Therefore, we cannot know all things. St. Paul has a humbling line in his first letter to the Corinthians that reminds us of this: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” -1 Corinthians 1:25
How boring the world would be if it were to lose all its sense of wonder and mystery! These are things that keep us striving after knowledge, adventure, and encourage man to seek and pursue something outside and higher than himself.
We should always keep striving to gain knowledge and understanding about the beautiful world in which we live, and the Infinite Being responsible for creating and sustaining it. But for a finite human being, true wisdom is marked not by knowing everything, but by knowing that you do not.